Aviation Radio Communication

Much of aviation communication and navigation is accomplished through the use of radio waves. Communication by radio was the first use of radio frequency transmissions in aviation.

Radio Waves

A radio wave is invisible to the human eye. It is electromagnetic in nature and part of the electronic spectrum of wave activity that includes gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet rays, infrared waves, and visible light rays, as well all radio waves. [Figure 1] The atmosphere is filled with these waves. Each wave occurs at a specific frequency and has a corresponding wavelength. The relationship between frequency and wavelength is inversely proportional. A high frequency wave has a short wave length and a low frequency wave has a long wave length.

Aircraft Radio Communication
Figure 1. Radio waves are just some of the electromagnetic waves found in space

In aviation, a variety of radio waves are used for communication. Figure 2 illustrates the radio spectrum that includes the range of common aviation radio frequencies and their applications.

aviation radio frequencies
Figure 2. There is a wide range of radio frequencies. Only the very low frequencies and the extremely high frequencies are not used in aviation

NOTE: A wide range of frequencies are used from low frequency (LF) at 100 kHz (100,000 cycles per second) to super high frequency (SHF) at nearly 10gHz (10,000,000,000 cycles per second). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controls the assignment of frequency usage.

AC power of a particular frequency has a characteristic length of conductor that is resonant at that frequency. This length is the wavelength of the frequency that can be seen on an oscilloscope. Fractions of the wavelength also resonate, especially half of a wavelength, which is the same as half of the AC sign wave or cycle.

The frequency of an AC signal is the number of times the AC cycles every second. AC applied to the center of a radio antenna, a conductor half the wavelength of the AC frequency, travels the length of the antenna, collapses, and travels the length of the antenna in the opposite direction. The number of times it does this every second is known as the radio wave signal frequency or radio frequency as shown in Figure 2. As the current flows through the antenna, corresponding electromagnetic and electric fields build, collapse, build in the opposite direction, and collapse again. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Radio Communication
Figure 3. 
Radio waves are produced by applying an AC signal to an antenna. This creates a magnetic and electric field around the antenna. They build and collapse as the AC cycles. The speed at which the AC cycles does not allow the fields to completely collapse before the next fields build. The collapsing fields are then forced out into space as radio waves

To transmit radio waves, an AC generator is placed at the midpoint of an antenna. As AC current builds and collapses in the antenna, a magnetic field also builds and collapses around it. An electric field also builds and subsides as the voltage shifts from one end of the antenna to the other. Both fields, the magnetic and the electric, fluctuate around the antenna at the same time. The antenna is half the wavelength of the AC signal received from the generator. At any one point along the antenna, voltage and current vary inversely to each other.

Because of the speed of the AC, the electromagnetic fields and electric fields created around the antenna do not have time to completely collapse as the AC cycles. Each new current flow creates new fields around the antenna that force the nottotally-collapsed fields from the previous AC cycle out into space. These are the radio waves. The process is continuous as long as AC is applied to the antenna. Thus, steady radio waves of a frequency determined by the input AC frequency propagate out into space.

Radio waves are directional and propagate out into space at 186,000 miles per second. The distance they travel depends on the frequency and the amplification of the signal AC sent to the antenna. The electric field component and the electromagnetic field component are oriented at 90° to each other, and at 90° to the direction that the wave is traveling. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Radio Communication
Figure 4. The electric field and the magnetic field of a radio wave are perpendicular to each other and to the direction of propagation of the wave

Types of Radio Waves

Radio waves of different frequencies have unique characteristics as they propagate through the atmosphere. Very low frequency (VLF), LF, and medium frequency (MF) waves have relatively long wavelengths and utilize correspondingly long antennas. Radio waves produced at these frequencies ranging from 3kHz to 3mHz are known as ground waves or surface waves. This is because they follow the curvature of the earth as they travel from the broadcast antenna to the receiving antenna. Ground waves are particularly useful for long distance transmissions. Automatic direction finders (ADF) and LORAN navigational aids use these frequencies. [Figure 5]

Aviation radio communication
Figure 5. Radio waves behave differently in the atmosphere depending in their frequency

High frequency (HF) radio waves travel in a straight line and do not curve to follow the earth’s surface. This would limit transmissions from the broadcast antenna to receiving antennas only in the line-of-sight of the broadcast antenna except for a unique characteristic. HF radio waves bounce off of the ionosphere layer of the atmosphere. This refraction extends the range of HF signals beyond line-of-sight. As a result, transoceanic aircraft often use HF radios for voice communication. The frequency range is between 2 to 25 MHz. These kinds of radio waves are known as sky waves. [Figure 5]

Above HF transmissions, radio waves are known as space waves. They are only capable of line-of-sight transmission and do not refract off of the ionosphere. [Figure 11-78] Most aviation communication and navigational aids operate with space waves. This includes VHF (30-300MHz), UHF (300MHz-3GHz), and super high frequency (SHF) (3Ghz-30Ghz) radio waves.

VHF communication radios are the primary communication radios used in aviation. They operate in the frequency range from 118.0 MHz to 136.975MHz. Seven hundred and twenty separate and distinct channels have been designated in this range with 25 kilohertz spacing between each channel. Further division of the bandwidth is possible, such as in Europe where 8.33 kilohertz separate each VHF communication channel. VHF radios are used for communications between aircraft and air traffic control (ATC), as well as air-to-air communication between aircraft. When using VHF, each party transmits and receives on the same channel. Only one party can transmit at any one time.

Loading Information onto a Radio Wave

The production and broadcast of radio waves does not convey any significant information. The basic radio wave discussed above is known as a carrier wave. To transmit and receive useful information, this wave is altered or modulated by an information signal. The information signal contains the unique voice or data information desired to be conveyed. The modulated carrier wave then carries the information from the transmitting radio to the receiving radio via their respective antennas. Two common methods of modulating carrier waves are amplitude modulation and frequency modulation.

Radio Transmitters and Receivers

Radio transmitters and receivers are electronic devices that manipulate electricity resulting in the transmission of useful information through the atmosphere or space.


As stated, antennas are conductors that are used to transmit and receive radio frequency waves. Although the airframe technician has limited duties in relation to maintaining and repairing avionics, it is the responsibility of the technician to install, inspect, repair, and maintain aircraft radio antennas. Three characteristics are of major concern when considering antennas:

  1. Length 
  2. Polarization 
  3. Directivity 

The exact shape and material from which an antenna is made can alter its transmitting and receiving characteristics. Also note that some non-metallic aircraft have antennas imbedded into the composite material as it is built up.

Types of Antennas

There are three basic types of antennas used in aviation: 

  1. Dipole antenna 
  2. Marconi antenna 
  3. Loop antenna.